UND Today

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By flying into snowstorms, UND grad students make IMPACT for NASA

Students’ flight-data analyses should improve weather forecasting models and safety

From left, undergrad student Nicholas Camp, graduate students Michael Willette, Jennifer Moore, Christian Nairy and Postdoctoral Fellow Marwa Majdi stand with equipment used to collect weather data for the NASA IMPACTS program. The team worked with David Delene, atmospheric professor of atmospheric sciences, in collecting and processing data for the project. Photo by Adam Kurtz/UND Today.

Christian Nairy wasn’t sure he had the time to tackle another research project at UND. He had plenty to do in completing a Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences. He changed his mind when he was offered the chance to fly directly into snowstorms to gather atmospheric data for NASA.

Nairy was asked to join the project by David Delene, research professor of Atmospheric Sciences, who was awarded more than $600,000 to participate in the NASA IMPACTS Project (Investigation of Microphysics & Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Snowstorms). Data gathered from the project will be used to help update forecasting models of winter storms on the East Coast. The project is undertaken only once every few decades and involves data collection by airplane and weather balloons, two of which were launched in mid-February: one on campus and the other in Bemidji, Minn.

Nairy already had a field project flying into cirrus anvil clouds over Florida, but he’s glad he said yes to the IMPACTS project — a project that would take him and graduate student Jennifer Moore through some of the roughest turbulence of their lives.

“I said yes because of the experience that I would gain, and the fact that I’d be flying on an aircraft doing real-world research in the field,” Nairy said. “I’m thankful every day that I said yes. It was a great opportunity.”

Delene, Nairy and Moore didn’t do the work alone, however. The research project had help from people across the academic strata of the UND Atmospheric Sciences Department.

Project members included: Marwa Majdi, postdoctoral fellow, who is doing post-processing, image assessment and who wrote software for the project; Michael Willette, a graduate student doing field support, data processing and acted as a backup flight engineer; Nicholas Camp, an undergrad who did data processing and acted as the lead balloon launch engineer and Blake Raffery, an undergrad who assisted with balloon launches. Nairy and Moore operated sensor equipment aboard a NASA P-3 aircraft.

UND graduate students Jennifer Moore and Christian Nairy inspect the probes they operate during NASA IMPACTS data collection flights. Contributed image by Chris Nozzarella, Yulista Tactical Services, on behalf of NASA.

Why fly into a snowstorm?

Not to state the obvious, but that’s where the snow is, or rather, that is where the atmospheric conditions exist that can cause a snowstorm that gets school called off. Such storms, Moore said, have a significant economic impact on businesses that end up having to close for a period. Then there are safety concerns for people who need to travel in an area with a high population density.

“Look at where we’re studying,” Moore said. “The northeast has a lot of people, and we have a lot of big cities that get impacted by snowstorms.”

Nairy said they are specifically interested in the microphysics of what is happening in the front, so forecasting models can be updated to improve safety, and limit losses from business closings.

Like Nairy, Willette said the project is meaningful because of the nature of the research, but it also brings the added benefits of hands-on experience and doing actual scientific work. Willette acted as backup and flew on a few NASA flights either in place of Nairy or Moore. As backup, he had to be familiar with calibrating and operating the wing-mounted sensors, as well as the onboard equipment, or “racks,” that operate them.

Jennifer Moore and Christian Nairy aboard a NASA P3 aircraft. Contributed photo by Chris Nozzarella, Yulista Tactical Services, on behalf of NASA.

“Extremely bumpy at times”

Nairy and Moore said they experienced turbulence that ranged from the mild to extreme. They’ve flown about 30 research flights since joining the program, with another 10 flights just to prep and calibrate the material, so they’ve gotten used to jostling and bumping up and down. The flights took place mostly near the East Coast and ranged up into Canada. The farthest east they flew was in Minnesota, in mid-February (that flight took 10 hours, as they followed a snow storm east).

Most off the time Nairy said flying into a storm is “unnervingly smooth,” while Moore said the standard bumps and dips of turbulence are “kind of calming.” But that is because they are on a mission and are monitoring equipment—and they have the benefit of knowing how the research may ultimately benefit eastern cities that get hit by snowstorms.

Nonscientists on the flights don’t always have that security. A flight over the Atlantic near Boston illustrates:

“We must have hit an updraft, our plane felt like it went vertical,” Nairy said. “You could feel your cheeks and your skin, and all your blood rushing down on your feet. Then on the other side of that we must have hit the downdraft because then our plane felt like it was floating. I had to catch my laptop. It was floating up in the air.”

When asked if she would fly in such conditions again, Moore simply responded: “Oh yeah.”

Note: This UND Today writer has watched the “Twilight Zone” episode “Nightmare at 20,000 feet,” and, not being a good flyer since then, will NOT be asking to join any future research flights.

Ice crystals captured by special sensor equipment operated by UND graduate students for the NASA IMPACTS program. Contributed image by Christian Nairy – Ph.D. graduate student.

But now those flights have been completed. Majdi processes the data after each flight (and at about eight hours a flight there is a lot of data to process), and it’s time to do an in-depth analysis of the microphysics data from the cloud. That data includes the amount of water and ice crystals found in the clouds the NASA plane flew through, as well as when and how frequently icing occurs on the plane. The wing-mounted probes capture this data, as well as striking images of the droplets and ice crystals that form in the air.

That whole process, sort of like doing quality assurance on the data, will take about six months Delene said. From there, it will be sent to NASA, for any atmospheric researcher to use. The UND team will also use the data in their own research projects.

Data from the science flights will be combined with the UND weather balloon data, computer models and ground-based radar data to help make sense of the snowstorms.

Delene said it was great to work with the UND group. He said they put in long hours not only on training, calibration and flights, but also on making any needed repairs to the sensitive equipment.

“It’s that kind of North Dakota spirit of ‘get it done,’” Delene said.

UND undergrad Nicholas Camp examines a device to be attached to a weather balloon. Camp served as balloon launch engineer for the NASA IMPACTS program in research carried out by UND. Photo by Adam Kurtz/UND Today.